THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Meditation on a midlife in SoHo

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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In his new novel, “By Nightfall,” Michael Cunningham zeroes in on the knowable and then the stubborn mysteries between spouses. And, as his fans can imagine, he does so with intense scrutiny and psychological wisdom. For every line of dialogue between New York married couple Peter and Rebecca Harris, he offers paragraphs of electric subtext, of relevant back story, of jumbled emotions. It’s the Virginia Woolf approach to the great size of the moment, to the history we carry into every encounter, that he evoked and celebrated so brilliantly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hours.”

And here’s another magical thing about Cunningham as a writer: He can recreate a certain kind of air, or a vague color of light, or a pace of pedestrian traffic, that only seems evanescent and unnamable. Along with his deep understanding of character, Cunningham brings an acute sense of time and place. There are passages in “By Nightfall” that submerge you in the hardware of the Harrises’ daily 21st-century lives, in particular that of Peter, a mildly successful art gallery owner in his mid-40s. We feel the New York streets Peter wanders, the galleries and museums that make him feel both inspired and insecure, the SoHo apartment kitchen where he faces his most private desires. So many of Cunningham’s physical descriptions read like confident prose poems, where you imagine what’s left between the lines.

As a testament to the richness of the literary imagination, “By Nightfall” is a success. You can’t read this novel without the sense of how worlds can be found in a drop of water, or in an offhand comment, or in the curve of a vase. Cunningham shows off his literary influences along the way, as he has in his previous works. He continues to honor Woolf, such as the time that Peter “had a vision” when “the world decided to reveal itself, briefly, to him.” He recalls Walt Whitman, the guiding spirit of his 2005 novel, “Specimen Days,” as he delivers a number of passionate descriptive catalogs. And by referencing “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” he invites us to consider Peter as a kind of Leopold Bloom journeying through his ordinary urban life. It’s a testament to Cunningham that he emerges from the effects of all his historic mentors with his own style at the fore.

Alas, in important ways “By Nightfall” is not quite successful. I never tired of reading the novel, savoring the intelligence of the prose. But the story itself, so small and incremental, has a stalled quality, a narrative stasis, that ultimately deflates the whole venture. In his third novel, “Flesh and Blood,” Cunningham took on too much, perhaps, as he crammed a family saga with juicy social and personal issues. Here, the flow is choked off by a lack of event, by the absence of forward movement until the hurried final segment.

The novel is also shakily dependent on a character who is as flat as Peter and Rebecca are richly realized. Rebecca’s much-younger brother, Ethan, enters the couple’s humdrum lives, and he is like gasoline on the smolder that is midlife disappointment. Ethan was born about 16 years after Rebecca, after her mother had had her tubes tied, and he was therefore given the oddly hurtful and yet precious nickname “Mizzy” — for The Mistake. Mizzy, now in his 20s, has struggled with drug addiction and aimlessness, and when he shows up in New York to stay with the Harrises, his presence brings out their comfortably buried neuroses. He reminds Peter of Rebecca when she was young and unwrinkled, and he also reminds Peter of his brother, Matthew, who died from AIDS many years earlier. To Peter, Mizzy is a provocative symbol of youth and beauty, of what could have been, of what might never be.

And that’s about all Mizzy is — a symbol. Cunningham never fleshes out Mizzy, telling us that Mizzy is special but never really showing it. Nor does Cunningham make Peter’s fascination with Mizzy feel like a natural development. I believed Peter’s awareness of his own failings, as an art dealer and as a husband, but I didn’t believe that he would ever see Mizzy as some kind of escape from that mediocrity. We get to know Peter so thoroughly, in all his plainness, through Cunningham’s reproductions of his stream of consciousness, and he doesn’t come off as a man who might suddenly discover a completely unknown self. While there may or may not be sexual flexibility at everyone’s core, Peter hardly seems available to that possibility. The risks he takes later in the novel seem tacked on, as if Cunningham realized that he needed to make something finally happen externally in this otherwise interior novel.

“By Nightfall” is a meditation on beauty, and it has its own indelible qualities of beauty. There are passages about the art world, about marriage, and about the Harrises’ troubled adult daughter in Boston, Bea, that hint at a different novel derived from the same rich material. That novel would be less claustrophobic and cerebral, but still written with the same perceptive spirit.

Matthew Gilbert is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

BY NIGHTFALL
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
238 pp., $25